How does a rodeo queen from West Texas transition from a career as an immunology researcher at the National Institutes of Health to ultimately becoming one of the up and coming Next-Gen Napa Valley winemakers, all by the age of 31?
We met Kristy Melton, Clos Du Val’s first female winemaker in it’s 40-year history, at a small tasting in Austin earlier this summer. As she says later in this interview, she is not the stereo-typical “older man with dirty work boots and a dog by my side” winemaker. We enjoyed her youthful enthusiasm and passion for winemaking, not to mention her sharp wit. Kristy Melton may not be a winemaking name you know today…No doubt however, it is a name you will be hearing much more about very soon.
B&B Wine Blog – What role did wine play in your family and upbringing?
KM: Unless you mean the wine made from rice and barley, very little. My few childhood memories of wine involve my grandfather, who traveled the world in the military after WW2, ordering “Chablis” at a restaurant with dinner. But where I grew up, his “Chablis” probably came from a box.
B&B Wine Blog – You began your career as a research scientist for the National Institutes of Health. What motivated you to go from research scientist to cellar rat to winemaker?
KM: I grew up raising livestock and tending a garden and have always been fond of having an actual product to show for hard work. I loved research and science, but at one point I realized all I had to show for 2 years of work was some numbers on a sheet of paper, which definitely didn’t sit well with me. I found that I could combine science, agriculture, and a bit of creativity to produce something that was really unique and brought joy to people. That’s a combination I just couldn’t resist.
B&B Wine Blog – Was there a seminal Ah-Ha moment when you knew you would make a life in the wine industry?
KM: I had just come back to work in Washington DC after a family vacation to Napa. I was sitting in a bar with a colleague and we were lamenting the rigors of research work. He had attended U.C. Davis to get a degree in molecular engineering and was telling me a story about how interesting and fun the people in the Viticulture and Enology program at Davis were and I became intrigued. I had already become fascinated with the industry while visiting, and after a couple of martinis, it seemed like an awesome idea to change careers. Good thing I didn’t change my mind the next morning, because it was one of the best decisions I ever made!
KM: Let the fruit speak, help it along when it needs, but above all I strive to make wines that are elegant and balanced, with a little experimentation to keep things interesting.
B&B Wine Blog – As the new winemaker at Clos Du Val what will you do to leave your personal mark on future vintages?
KM: Clos Du Val has always had a classic style that stands the test of time. Being one of the younger winemakers in the door at Clos Du Val, I push a little more of an interpretive style. I add a bit more fruit, viscosity and concentration to the wine by using some new fermentation techniques and philosophies. I hope the next vintages show more of a twist toward that style.
B&B Wine Blog – In your new role as winemaker what is the most nerve racking decision you have had to make for the first time?
KM: Definitely calling the first pick of any harvest. 2011 brought the most challenging decision to pick (and my first real call as winemaker) because I had to weigh ripeness vs. risk of rain. That’s almost a flip a coin decision, but no less nerve racking.
B&B Wine Blog – What unique challenges do women winemakers face that men do not?
KM: The challenges surprisingly come more from the place I least expected; not with those in the industry, but with consumers. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to be introduced as the “real, actual winemaker” and “I swear really she’s the winemaker”. Even after those introductions, people then turn to me and ask if I am in sales or marketing. One salesman told me I just didn’t fit the image of a winemaker in consumers’ heads because I wasn’t an older man with dirty work boots and a dog by my side.
B&B Wine Blog – What, if any, special attributes do you think women bring to the art of winemaking?
KM: I don’t particularly like thinking that one gender is better at something than another. But if we have to pick attributes, I think there’s a special nuance to women’s sensory perception. We generally are fairly good tasters and are very concerned about the details and complexities of wines. We generally don’t like wines that beat your palate up with oak, alcohol or extraction, so our wines seem to also be in that vein.
B&B Wine Blog – What winemakers have been your personal mentors and what have you learned from them?
KM: My favorite winemaker to have worked with was Clive Dougall at Seresin Estate in Marlborough, New Zealand. I’ve never met someone so calm, cool, and collected during stressful times; fun loving through it all, and ultimately concerned about each and every one of us. I don’t think he knew how much he was impacting all of us at the time. He was more trying to do his job and save a really crazy vintage of wines, but I’m sure all of us that harvest will never forget that experience. From him, I learned patience, perspective, respect, and understanding; which in this industry frequently goes farther than technical aptitude.
B&B Wine Blog – What do you consider the single most important personal attribute one must have to be a successful winemaker?
KM: Perspective. At times I say patience, but that’s just a component to perspective when you look at things the right way. Nature is unforgiving at times and we are at its mercy.
B&B Wine Blog – What wines are your personal favorites among the current Clos Du Val releases?
KM: 2011 Three Graces White: a blend of Roussane, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon blanc: I love this wine because people probably think it’s a crazy group to blend together, but it’s floral, fruity, elegant and perfect for summer. I like surprising people!
2010 Lone Cypress Pinot Noir: CDV has 180 of prime Carneros vineyards and this is the most vibrant and beautiful expression of a single vineyard, single block offering I could make from this amazing site.
And upcoming new wine called 2009 JG’s Joie Du Vin. It’s a single block Stags Leap District Cabernet and is our new luxury wine. We’ve never done it before and I think it’s amazing. Goes back to the liking to surprising people! (Release somewhere Dec 2012?)
B&B Wine Blog – Other than Clos Du Val what wines do you consider your go-to wines?
KM: Pinot—especially that from Russian River or the Sonoma Coast and interesting aromatic white varietals from all over California
B&B Wine Blog – Tell us something unexpected about you or your life away from wine.
KM: What life away from wine?? There’s not really such a thing in my life anymore. I get about 1 weekend to myself away from work these days, outside of harvest. I used to love skydiving, playing polo, and going to horse races. But now I enjoy the rare moments to meet up with friends and have a few drinks a laugh or two, and remember how lucky I am to live and work in Napa Valley.